Tea and Culture
Here in America, few of us let a day go by without at least one cup of coffee. Whether it’s part of an early morning routine, a mid-morning break, or an afternoon perk-up, coffee drinking is a common, ritualized facet of American culture. However, for much of the rest of the world, there is another hot beverage, whose history and rituals play a vital role in contemporary society.
Coffee’s international antagonist is, of course, tea. Though we can’t be sure how long tea has been consumed as a beverage, theorized dates of origin range from the 10th century B.C. to the 1st century B.C. And the hot, refreshing beverage’s global popularity can be attributed not only to its lengthy history, but also to its social importance.
The custom of tea-drinking is likely to have originated in China. However, its neighbor to the south, Vietnam, boasts the perfect climate for growing the plant. Warm temperatures and predictable rainfalls have supported tea growth in Vietnam for thousands of years and with such a perfect environment for the delicate leaves, it was only a matter of time before drinking tea became a popular tradition in Vietnam. Though sharing tea doesn’t have to be a formal affair, its importance in Vietnamese culture is by no means understated. Tea is served before business transactions, in political negotiations, during weddings, and friendly introductions and refusing a public offering of tea could be seen as a social faux pas. The most common type of tea in Vietnam is green tea; however, oolong is also quite popular, along with black and herbal varietals.
Though not made up of the most fervent population of tea drinkers, the small nation of Portugal has played an important role in tea’s development as a global beverage. In fact, it is likely that Portugal introduced tea to the west. In the late 16th century, Portuguese traders and explorers adapted the customs of growing and drinking tea. Slowly, the rest of Europe took up sipping tea throughout the day. As time pressed on, the custom of drinking tea proved to hold a firmer grasp on other European nations. However, Portugal’s Azores Islands, noted for their unique climate given their North Atlantic location, still grow a variety of tea today.
After making its way to Europe, tea drinking eventually began to catch on throughout the world. Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the custom with them as they explored South America. However, the Europeans’ taste for tea could hardly be quenched by the limited availability of tea growth in the region. Instead, settlers adapted a native practice to their social habits, and picked up drinking yerba mate. Mate is a hot drink, but is not technically a “true” tea, rather an herbal infusion. But what really sets mate apart from traditional tea is its method of consumption. Dried yerba mate leaves are placed into a hollowed out gourd, and the steeped in hot water. After steeping for a few minutes, the mixture is then drunk through a unique straw that filters out the leaves and only allows the smooth liquid to pass. In Argentina, yerba mate is often served with breakfast, occasionally at gatherings in the early evening. Though the practice is not quite as widespread as Vietnamese tea drinking, yerba mate has deep roots in indigenous Argentine culture and is proudly declared Argentina’s national drink.